When I left Siem Reap I was deciding between 2 options: 1) Go south to Koh Rong, an island that was highly recommended by more than one backpacker friend, and Ben’s next stop; 2) Take a river ride to Battambang, a town between Siem Reap and the border of Thailand that was known for its French Colonial architecture and nearby temples, and my original plan.
This was a tough one because Koh Rong was such a tempting option since it was supposedly a chill, beautiful backpacker haven, and I had a friend to go with. In the end though I had to go with Battambang. I have already said how I prefer mountains to beaches, and knowing that I had a few weeks of beaches coming up in Thailand and Indonesia I needed one last inland fix. Plus the Lonely Planet description called to me:
“There’s something about Battambang that visitors just love… The colonial architecture, the riverside setting, the laid-back cafes… It’s the perfect blend of relatively urban modernity and small-town friendliness. Outside the city’s confines, meanwhile, timeless hilltop temples and bucolic villages await.”
That sounded like my kind of town. And the way I chose to get there was an adventure in itself: Cambodia’s most scenic boat journey.
I woke up when it was still dark out and was picked up by a van that fit more people than should be allowed, but that didn’t stop me from sleeping the whole ride to the boat (I had gotten about an hour of sleep after the near-robbery). We made it to the dock shortly after dawn. I don’t know why I was expecting it to run smoothly, this is local transportation in Cambodia after all. We were loaded onto a smallish wooden boat that has clearly made this trip thousands of times and there we sat for an hour. How I managed to sleep sitting on that wooden bench I will never know. Finally it was time to go, so we pushed off from the boat next to us and puttered out into the wide river.
It was cold. The first time I felt cold in Cambodia. I was in and out of consciousness, recognizing that we were on a river but not yet seeing why it was such a recommended ride. Then the boat slowed down and we approached a floating village. The village on Tonle Sap lake is well-known throughout Cambodia; it’s advertised in travel guides as a must-do trip from Siem Reap, and it’s a pretty impressive place. Houses and markets are built simply, out of wood and plants, on flotation devices that bob with the current. Small motorboats are the only means of transport.
This being Cambodia – safety third – I climbed out from my seat to stand along the few inches of wood on the side of the boat. I noticed all the people sitting on the roof of our boat for the first time. I hung on with one hand and took pictures with the other, waving to kids as we passed. A boat approached ours and a few people and some supplies were transferred between boats as we drifted downstream.
Throughout the boat ride we saw smaller versions of this floating village, including one where we stopped for snacks and refreshments. I got a cold can of coke and finally felt awake. I sat on the front of the boat for a while until we reached the tricky part of the journey. For the next couple of hours we wound around tight turns, using a combination of the motor and a huge paddle to navigate the snakelike river. We passed houses that were no longer floating but were made out of old boats sitting on the riverbank. I wondered how people live in them. Every turn had a giant fishing apparatus in the water; it worked like scale, with a large circular net submerged on one side of a pole, and a rope on the other side that could be pulled down to raise the net. I assumed that fishing and some farming were how people here survived.
It took 9 hours to reach Battambang. Admittedly I was in and out of sleep for the first 4 or 5, but once I reached shore I was happy to have experienced the ride. I was able to see a different side of Cambodia, where life revolves in, around, and on the river. It was a quiet life, and it didn’t look like an easy life, but that didn’t stop the kids from flashing us big smiles and enthusiastically waving as we passed. I couldn’t help but wave back to every single one of them. I wasn’t alone in doing this, most of the boat must have waved at nearly a hundred children. Something about kids running on shore waving at you as your boat glides by just makes you smile. I smiled a lot that day.
When I left Cairns on an overnight bus for Airlie Beach I was excited. It was time to start my adventures. First stop: a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands.
I boarded Habibi with 19 other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Canada, and France, as well as our Aussie skipper and 3 crew members. Together we sailed off into the expansive blue ocean. Or more accurately, we motored off. The wind wasn’t in our favor so the skipper mainly used the motor to get around. We were convinced that the few times the sail went up was more for show than practical application. I didn’t care either way though, we were still out at sea living on a boat and it was amazing.
The boat was an older model with wood benches above and even more wood bunks below. As we set off we were told our sleeping arrangements. Claire and I apparently won the lottery; we were given “the orgy bed” – it was almost the entire back of the boat and could have easily fit more than just the two of us, but we were happy to be able to starfish and not even come close to each other. Our boatmates that were assigned the small bunks were not as happy as we were.
I got lucky with a good group. There’s always an element of risk when you book a tour like this, especially as a solo traveler. As I walked to the boat I wondered what kind of group I would be with: partiers? couples? awkward people? What I got was a friendly group who was happy to hang out on a boat in nature. By the end of our few days together I wished we could keep the group together for the rest of my time in Oz, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.
The Whitsundays are paradise. Deep blue sea dotted with uninhabited, green tree-covered islands lined with thin white stretches of sand. In one case we stopped at an island that was only a thin white stretch of sand. It was quiet, relaxed, sunny, warm, beautiful.
Our days on Habibi went as follows: Day 1 was spent just getting out to where we would spend the night. We played a get to know each other game but didn’t stay up too late since we knew we had a full day ahead of us.
Day 2 we were woken up around 6 am for breakfast and then shuttled off to the island that was home to Whitehaven Beach, famous for being the most pristine beach in the Whitsundays. We were first to the island and from a viewpoint above the beach we saw it empty, devoid of the throngs of tourists that would soon catch up with us. We had 3 hours to play on the beach. We walked in the shallow water with sting rays all around us, took pyramid and jumping pictures in our attractive stinger suits, played soccer, and lounged on the sand. Some people practiced yoga and I took my now-traditional cartwheeling picture.
We returned to the boat for lunch – Habibi has really great food – before our snorkeling afternoon. Stop 1 was all about fish. From a school of striped fish right at the boat to George the gigantic parrot fish, we were never alone. Stop 2 was all about turtles. We had seen some turtles bobbing their heads up around our boat where we stopped the night before, but at the second snorkeling location we actually got a chance to swim with three of them. There’s not a single person who wasn’t smiling after this encounter. On our way to where we would drop anchor for the night we learned how to summon eagles from an island we were passing: whistle very loudly and wave some meat. Twice we were able to successfully throw a piece of meat in the air and watch an eagle swoop to catch it. This is entertainment in the Whitsundays.
We watched the sunset, sending it below the horizon with a cheer, and in the darkness we played a game and watched for shooting stars before another early bed time. I slept on deck with a handful of others. My bed was a bench covered with a yoga mat that cocooned me like a wooden hammock. Surprisingly I slept pretty well.
Day 3 we had one final snorkeling stop before motoring back to shore. This ended up being my favorite location. The reef was colorful, varied, with tons of different coral and fish to keep me entertained for the entire hour or so we were in the water. I even saw Nemo! Or at least the blacker cousin of Nemo. If it wasn’t for the jellyfish we had to swim through to get out and back it would’ve been a perfect location. We just hoped they weren’t the kind of jellyfish that could kill us (they do exist in the Whitsundays).
As we made our way back to Airlie Beach everyone was quiet, gazing out at the water or napping in the sun. I sat with my feet dangling off the side of the boat and watched the islands pass by, soaking in the happiness of the past few days on Habibi.
The Whitsunday boat was a last-minute decision when I got to Cairns and turned out to be a highlight of my time in Oz. It was a relaxing few days with great scenery, nature and people.
It’s worth mentioning that this is where I met Pascal, Chris and Marie, three Germans who were doing pretty much the same trip as me. We had actually all been at Asylum in Cairns at the same time but didn’t know it; we met on Habibi, where we figured out we’d be on the same Fraser Island tour, and that our timing would align in Byron Bay and Thailand for Christmas too (minus Marie who had to go home after Fraser). When we returned to Airlie I spent the day with them before our overnight buses to Rainbow Beach, where we would reconnect in our hostel before Fraser Island. Their names will come up again in future posts. I was no longer alone in Australia.
I went on two very different day trips during my stay in Rio that showed just how varied a region of Brazil can be.
The first was an all day boat trip to and around Ilha Grande. After what seemed like an eternity napping on a small bus (in reality about 3 hours), we arrived at a port and boarded our boat, the Ipanema, that would take us out for the day. The boat was equipped with a bar, an excessively loud speaker system, and clientele ranging from families to rowdy dancing Argentinians. It seems that everyone is drawn to this day on the water, and I can see why. The water is perfectly blueish green and the collection of islands looks like a dream world. It’s impossible to capture just how pretty it is in pictures.
We stopped four times throughout the day. First we had half an hour to explore a tiny island with white sand and inviting water. Second the boat simply stopped and let all of us jump off and swim with the fish. They supplied pool noodles and this seemed to make everyone think we couldn’t travel far; people looked like sitting ducks bobbing on noodles next to the boat. The water was pleasant though and watching everyone’s different jumping/diving styles was entertaining.
Third was the stop at Ilha Grande for a walk across the island. The jungle flora was cool to see, but the seemingly deserted buildings felt a lot like walking through the Lost island. Venturing from one side of the island to the other was less of a hike than we were hoping for, but it was nice to get out and move around. And then the unexpected highlight of the day happened: there seemed to be some sort of amateur photoshoot going on while we were waiting to be picked up, and everyone from our boat was mesmerized. They do say that Brazilian women have the best butts for a reason… A brave and cheeky Argentinian decided to join in on the fun, mimicking her modeling bare-assed and even swimming up to surprise the girl as she posed on a rock. He excuted this stunt perfectly and became the hero of the trip.
After all the men eventually tore themselves away from this scene and rejoined the boat, we finally had a chance to eat lunch at our last stop. Then it was back on the boat for a sunset trip back to the dock. It was a beautiful scene that was completely contradicted by the rowdy Argentinians starting a dance party to songs like Gangnam Style. I was a brief participant when I was coaxed into attempting samba-like dancing on a platform on the boat. The movements of samba dancing are hard in general for non-South Americans and even harder on a boat, but I figured eh why not? It was fun.
The whole day felt like a scene out of a movie about how to vacation with friends in South America: bucket of beers on a boat in perfect sunshine surrounded by pristine scenery. It was the type of day that made us turn to each other and say, “this is my life right now, fucking awesome.”
Petrópolis was pretty much the opposite of Ilha Grande. This old German settlement is up in the mountains above Rio. The scenic drive to get there winds through lush green hillshide; and our drive was accompanied by stops for antique hunting and delicous sausage sandwiches. When we eventually arrived at Petrópolis I felt like we were driving through a small European village that had been plunked down in South America. And then I learned that I was on this adventure with the perfect tour guide.
Alfredo spent a few years of his childhood living in Petrópolis, and his family was so involved with the city and the Imperial Museum that I learned more from him than I could have hoped to learn from any guidebook. As we walked around the grounds of the museum, past ornate houses, to the cathedral, to the Crystal Palace, and ending at a very traditional Brazilian steakhouse, Alfredo told us stories about Brazilian history. I learned about the war with Paraguay, the last Emperor of Brazil, and efforts that were made to preserve important art and architecture in Petrópolis. Alfredo if you ever read this – thank you!
An unexpected part of this tour was the beer festival that was happening in and around the Crystal Palace. Of course we were there for the time the played Edelweiss; any time I’m around live German music I hear this song. It’s like they know.
Petrópolis would have been difficult to get to without having a car, so I was lucky to have hosts who offered to take me there. It was a lovely town with an interesting mixture of Europe and Brazil, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.